Cycling History

Le Tour de France: Stage 18 – Blagnac-Brive-la-Gaillarde, 2012

Mark Cavendish sprints for line to win stage 18 of the 2012 Tour de France. © Tim De Waele

Mark Cavendish sprints for line to win stage 18 of the 2012 Tour de France. © Tim De Waele

Cue peals of thunder, bolts of lightning, ominous sounds on the wind, for it’s time to talk about … The Curse of The Rainbow Jersey! … cycling’s very own urban legend about how the rider wearing the World Road Champion’s jersey is jinxed for the next season, or the season after that … or maybe the curse won’t strike for years, but it will, you can be sure of that! Over the years the curse has been raised as the reason behind the premature deaths of a handful of riders who’d worn the rainbow bands, of disastrous seasons after winning the Champs, of scandalous downfalls, and of simple bad luck.

Except of course it’s all hogwash. There is no curse and in reality there are as many riders who enjoy a successful year in the rainbow jersey as those who don’t. If you’ve been following this blog in recent days you’ll hopefully have already read about Thor Hushovd’s spectacular stage win at Lourdes in 2011, and there are others that have been successful at Le Tour despite the added burden of expectation that comes with wearing the colours of the World Champion. Most notably Greg LeMond who was reigning World Champion when he secured his third Tour victory in 1990; Eddy Merckx who started Le Tour in 1972 as World Champion and finished it by sealing his fourth consecutive victory, winning 6 stages along the way; Louison Bobet who won the 1955 Tour; and Bernard Hinault, winner in 1981 with 4 stages.

Of course many World Champions have ridden Le Tour without gaining a success, not winning a stage let alone the general classification. Proponents of the curse would point to this as evidence of its effect but it’s far more sensible to recognise that late season form in a one-day race isn’t necessarily an indicator of form for the following July. Many World Champions have been one-day specialists rather than Tour riders and their lack of success in the greatest three-week stage race is no surprise. The Champion’s jersey also makes a rider more visible in the peloton as other riders and rival teams mark any moves the holder may make further reducing their chances of success. 2013 champion, Rui Costa, has also spoken of how the increased attention from media distracted him from focusing fully on racing and training during 2014.

It’s no real surprise then that the reigning World Champion might not show well during Le Tour. The odds are stacked against him. But not always, as in 2012 when the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish, racked up three wins including the sprint for the line during the race finale on the Champs-Élysées which saw him reach a total of 23 career wins in Le Tour. The previous year had seen him become the first British rider to win the Green Jersey, winning 5 stages along the way.

In 2012 he joined Team Sky as the reigning World Champion. Where he had been the undisputed team leader at HTC-Highroad, Cavendish now found himself being a second string to Sky’s bow. Their aim, first and foremost, was to win Le Tour with Bradley Wiggins. For Cavendish this meant he no longer had the full resources of his team at his disposal to lead him out in the sprints. Notwithstanding, he opened his account on stage 2, beating André Greipel to the line at Tournai. On stage 4 a crash with 3 kilometres robbed him of the chance for a second stage win. Another crash on stage 6 with 25 kilometres to go saw him delayed, rolling in to Metz 6 minutes behind the winner, Peter Sagan.

The next few stages saw the race enter the mountains, terrain upon which Cavendish wasn’t in contention. Cavendish temporarily reverted to the role of domestique, carrying bottles from the team car to his team mates, dropping back to collect rain jackets, and even helping lead Sky and the rest of the peloton down the rain soaked descent from the Port de Lers to the foot of the Mur de Péguère. For Cavendish this was a completely different experience. Previously it had been his team mates doing this work for him. He was honest enough to admit that he found it frustrating to see other riders beat him in the sprint in part as a result of not having the full resources of a lead out train to bring him to the finish line, but went on to say that working for Wiggins in Yellow was repayment for the work that Wiggins had put in at Copenhagen to help him win the Rainbow Jersey.

Besides, Cavendish knew that if he made it through the mountains then there were chances for him to take another stage or two on the other side. That chance came on stage 18, 222.5 kilometres from Blagnac to Brive la Gaillarde. It was a mostly flat stage that included a few serious, if short, 4th and 3rd category climbs. The flat finish suggested it would be a day for the sprinters but with few opportunities left to take a victory before Paris and 13 teams still without a victory it would also be a day for the breakaway artists.

And that proved to be the case. A large breakaway formed on the first climb of the day, the Côte de Saint-Georges, 1 kilometre at a gradient of 10.3 per cent, gaining 4 minutes over the peloton. With 43 kilometres to go the peloton had reduced the gap to just over a minute.In the breakaway David Millar attacked splitting the group and creating a final selection of 6 riders that included Cavendish’s team mate Edvald Boasson-Hagen. Behind them the peloton slowly clawed back the deficit. In the breakaway rider after rider attempted to make the winning move without success.

Earlier that day at their team hotel the Sky management and riders had been discussing the tactics for the day. Directeur sportif, Sean Yates, felt that the team should take it easy, focusing on ensuring that they reached Paris with Wiggins in yellow. Cavendish argued his case for the team to go for the stage win, but Yates insisted that they let the break go if one formed. At that point Wiggins stepped in, declaring that they would ride for Cavendish that day, vowing to make the sprint happen. A view that was also supported by Chris Froome.

As the final kilometres to the line were reeled off, the gap, still at 1 minute with 20 kilometres to go, began to fall. With 4 kilometres left it stood at 6 seconds. At 2 kilometres it was still 5 seconds. Behind the 6 riders Wiggins, wearing yellow, came to the front of the peloton with 1.4 kilometres to go, Boasson-Hagen in second place and Cavendish in third. Wiggins, an Olympic and World Champion pursuiter powered through the gap, peeling off to allow Boasson-Hagen to bridge the last few metres to the breakaway riders with 600 metres to go. Ahead of them Nicholas Roche and Luis Leon Sanchez created another tiny gap as they sprinted for victory. And then Cavendish exploded for the line, bridging to Sanchez and then steaming past Roche to win by several bike lengths.

Wiggins had been true to his word. It was a generous gesture. Received wisdom is that the wearer of the yellow jersey has his team mates to work for him, not the other way round, particularly in the dangerous final minutes of a charge to the finish line during a sprinters stage. Two days later he repeated the performance, leading Boasson-Hagen and Cavendish under the flamme rouge with 1 kilometre to go setting Cavendish up to become the first ever World Champion to win on the Champs-Élysées.

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